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XII. Pentestella



The little fleet left the damaged star base and its huddling population of Ngugma, and decamped to a distant planetoid, an icy world a thousand kilometers across that barely acknowledged the influence of the stars of Spiral Arch. Another week’s furlough was granted, with the crews and pilots given freedom to explore the entire planet’s range of recreational possibilities.

“Looks great,” said Rachel, standing back from the big plastic window. She and Natasha stood in the mouth of a cave, sealed off from outer space by a half millimeter film, while a millimeter film protected the warming air inside from the icy stuff of the planetoid. Vera, Apple and Izawa were still checking for leaks. Mizra Aliya and Millie Grohl were further inside the cave, using more film to close off cracks. They were all in vac suits, their visors still sealed.

“That still kind of spooks me,” said Natasha, admiring the view. “I sort of expect to see a big ol’ gas giant planet out there that this is a moon of, but instead we get to look at the galactic core.”

“It’s where we’re headed,” said Vera.

“I know,” said Natasha, a little anxiety in her voice. She snickered. “I can’t wait.”

“Can we—?” asked Apple, indicating her visor.

“Oh, sure,” said Rachel, checking the sensor in her hand. She undid her own visor and pushed her hood-like helmet back off her black hair. She smiled at Natasha, pulled a food bar out of her pocket and took a bite. “Hey,” she said, through a mouthful.

“What?” said Apple, who had pushed her vac suit down to her waist. “Hubby isn’t in here, and besides, he’s seen it all.” She smiled, turned and kissed Izawa, who, a little shyer, was just doing the same thing.

“Well, fine,” said Rachel. She unzipped her suit all the way to just below her collar bone. “Is anyone going to offer me a smoke?”

Outside, on a chunk of ice-rock a hundred meters in front and to the left of the cave, Clay and Skzyyn and Dzvezyets sat gazing at the rising galaxy. The core, obscured still by dust lanes, occupied thirty degrees of the sky. A little way away, Li and Timmis were strolling across the airless, icy rock, holding gloved hands.

“Going all that way?” asked Skzyyn.

“I guess so,” said Clay.

“Why?” asked Dzvezyets. “What is there?”

Clay stared at the galaxy, thinking how odd it was to actually be staring at his own galaxy. How odd it was to have a galaxy, and to be aware that it was his galaxy.

“We used to think,” he said, and he took a breath of his vac suit’s clean air. “You used to think, I’m sure, that your world, your two planets, were big, that all your enemies were there, everything that was a threat to you. We were afraid of the wolves, we were afraid of diseases, of evil spirits. We were afraid of the people on the other side of the ocean. Then we were a little afraid of aliens coming and invading Earth. We should have been more concerned than we were, I guess. Same with you guys, obviously.”

“Yes,” said Skzyyn. “But the universe is large.”

“Yeah. We kept realizing it was larger than we thought. There’s an old quote from someone, to the effect that it’s too late to save just yourself, or your family, or your home town, or your country, that you can only save the world. Well, it’s worse than that. We can’t save Bluehorse, or Earth, or Fyatskaab, we can only save the Orion Arm of the frickin’ Galaxy.”

“Question,” said Dzvezyets. “Who is Orion and what is it to frick?”

“Orion was a hunter, and from Earth, a certain group of stars looks like a guy with a bow and a sword on his belt. The other thing, I don’t really know.”

They thought about that. Skzyyn said, “And you don’t mind that we won’t go all that way with you? That we go to the next place, to Five Star, to Pentestella, and then we go home to Fyatskaab?”

“No, I completely get that,” said Clay. “You have two planets to save too. Maybe you, or maybe your grand-kids, will come join us. Eleven thousand years from now, you know, in a couple of years.”

They gazed at the galaxy a little longer. “Have any smoke?” asked Dzvezyets.

“Sure,” said Clay. “Let’s go see how the ladies did with the cave. Don’t want them to be getting up to any hijinks.”

They got up and started toward the cave, Clay walking bouncily in the low gravity while his Tskelly companions scampered like the eight-legged squirrels they were, and the Milky Way stretched over their heads and the galactic hub gazed balefully from behind its dusty mask.